What makes a story memorable?
Think about your favorite stories: the ones that delighted you as a child, grabbed your heart as a teenager and now captivate you as an adult.
A few of mine are:
When reading a wonderful story few of us stop to think about what exactly makes it so compelling––what draws us in and makes time pass unnoticed as we tear through the pages. While the experience of getting lost in a story might seem completely natural, even magical, great story writers cleverly employ techniques proven to get (and keep) a reader’s attention.
These techniques aren’t restricted to the domains of literature and reporting; companies can use them to tell a story that helps customers connect with their brand. Before diving into exactly how companies can become better storytellers let’s look at why stories are so powerful in the first place.
Your Brain On Stories
We know that stories can move us to feel profound emotion, but what’s really going on in our brains when we read, watch or hear stories that we connect with?
Scientists have shown that stories activate a much larger portion of the brain than unstructured verbal dribble or boring lists. In fact, a well-told story can change our brain chemistry and influence our behavior.
The video below talks about a study conducted using a heartbreaking story of a boy who is dying of cancer and the difficulty this causes his grieving father. The story was shown in video format to a group of test subjects, and the laboratory found that two primary emotions were elicited: distress and empathy. Blood tests demonstrated that these emotions correlated with increased levels of cortisol (stress) and oxytocin (empathy).
After watching the video participants were given the opportunity to share money with other test subjects and, in a second set of tests, donate to a charity; results showed a direct correlation between the amount of oxytocin in the subjects’ blood and the amount of money shared or donated.
So, a story that ignites our capacity for empathy and spikes our production of oxytocin can actually move us to gift money to others.
Sure enough, other studies have also demonstrated that empathy plays a key role in how we process stories.
A study conducted at Washington University showed that when people read a story their brain processes the narrative by activating the same regions of the brain that are engaged when navigating similar real-world situations. In other words, readers understand a story by simulating the events happening in the story world as if they were actually experiencing them. Now that’s empathy!
Now let’s look at a few examples of small businesses who have employed one or several time-tested tactics for great storytelling.
1. Basecamp: Tell A Compelling Origin Story
In comic book terminology, the “origin story” is the story of how an ordinary person became a superhero or supervillain. Similarly, your company’s origin story reveals how the business came to exist, and the most powerful ones employ a superhero-esque narrative that begins with a struggle to solve a problem and ends with finding a killer solution that makes the world a better place. This is called the “hero’s journey” narrative structure, and it’s incredibly effective.
Basecamp has a great origin story: It’s about a small web design firm struggling to stay organized and manage their projects efficiently. Like the makers of many great products, they wanted something that didn’t exist, so they built it themselves. Soon, their clients started asking how they were so great at managing projects, and the rest is history.
Why do stories about companies with humble beginnings resonate with us? As direct-response copywriter and persuasion expert Felicia Sparr points out, it’s what people can relate to, and relatability fosters trust and loyalty. Also, humble beginnings and a do-it-yourself work ethic go hand-in-hand with the American Dream.
2. Holstee: Let People See Themselves In Your Story
Who hasn’t felt stuck, frustrated, lost and a little helpless at one point in their lives?
The Holstee Manifesto, produced by the Brooklyn-based design studio Holstee, is like the ultimate best friend shaking your shoulders and telling you to get yourself together when you’re feeling down in the dumps. It’s the antidote to that nagging, negative voice that pops up in our heads from time-to-time telling us we can’t do something and filling us with self-doubt.
Maybe this isn’t like a typical story that has a beginning, middle and end, but it always struck me as the story of a person’s mind at a particular point in life. And it’s certainly an extension of the story Holstee projects about its brand.
Shortly after being released the Manifesto went viral, and since then it has been translated into over a dozen languages and knocked off many times over. Why? Because, similar to a great origin story, it’s relatable––almost everyone can see themselves in the words printed on that poster. It’s like someone is inside your head, reading your thoughts and responding.
At the same time it’s aspirational––we all wish we had the unbending confidence portrayed in the voice on the poster, and we yearn to quiet our racing minds and face life’s lessons with that level of sincerity, authenticity and boldness.
3. Everlane: Be Different
Everlane caught the attention of fashion-conscious consumers by telling a story that sets the company apart from other clothing brands. Their story is about transparency, authenticity, defiance when it counts and a greater sense of humanity.
They reveal the true cost it takes to make each garment as well as the garment’s markup. Everlane explains on their about page that traditional designer clothing is marked up 8x the true cost, and that they are able to lower this markup for the consumer and still be profitable by forgoing brick-and-mortar stores.
“We constantly challenge the status quo. Nothing is worse than complacency, and as a brand our culture is to dissect every single decision we make at every level of the company.
We know our customers are also rule breakers and questioners, so we hope this philosophy is palpable in the products and choices we make. And by all means, challenge us too.”
They are speaking to a millennial audience that prides itself on living differently and eschewing conventions. By saying that their customers are also “rule breakers and questioners” and inviting them to challenge the company, they make the customer a bit of a hero and reinforce millennials’ sense of identity.
4. Buffer: Tell Your Brand Story Every Day, In Multiple Channels
Buffer is great at telling the story of its brand day-in and day-out through the content it produces across the web. They are laser-clear on what their brand represents, and it shines in everything they do.
They write about productivity, transparency and company culture on their BufferOpen blog, where they share a monthly Marketing Report that reveals all of their key marketing metrics––they even reveal the salaries of their employees.
Co-Founder Leo Widrich’s post on rethinking the 8-hour work day, which he adapted for Life Hacker and the Huffington Post, reinforces Buffer’s commitment to challenging the status-quo when it comes to company culture.
The newest Slideshare on Buffer’s values––uploaded just a few months ago––has been viewed nearly 74,000 times. It explains the core values that guide the company and it’s employees, and its punchy, idealistic and inspiring tone makes it easy for customers to see themselves in what the company represents.
Start by revisiting your origin story (or writing your’s down, if you haven’t already). Make sure you imbue it with a little hero’s-journey narrative structure, and then expand it to the rest of your marketing materials, like Buffer has done. Maybe you’ll also find a way to tell your story from your customer’s point of view, like Holstee.
And always remember to be different. Your story is, afterall, what makes your company unique.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite examples of a company (this time, a not-so-small one) telling a beautiful story.